In a major speech about FE in Cambridge towards the end of last month Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills (BiS), announced plans for more National Colleges. The very first such college – to develop engineers for High Speed 2 rail - went out to consultation on 7 March this year.
The Labour Party too has called for Institutes of Technical Excellence (ITEs) in its recent policy statements on reforming FE. Then the influential Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) argued last year for the return of polytechnics in one of its policy papers. Is the policy establishment thinking as one? And if so why?
The answer to the latter question is straightforward. The UK has a wine glass shaped economy with a bulge of professional jobs at the top and a very broad base of low level minimum wage-type jobs in a raft of insecure sectors at the base. The stem is rather thin. And the stem is where associate professional jobs and those with intermediate skills and roles are found. Put simply the UK economy needs a broader stem. It needs a beer glass labour market not a wine glass or champagne flute- shaped labour market. And this requires many more people qualified at level 4 and 5.
This is why the current government is so keen to enable FE colleges to offer far more opportunities for people to gain those intermediate level skills. Sub-degree level qualifications are in far too scant supply as Vince alluded to in his speech. Labour agrees. In fact everyone agrees. We need more of these levels of skills in our economy. Driving up levels of participation at full degree level in Higher Education has dominated the skills reform landscape in the UK for the last two decades. Now the country needs to balance that drive with a renewed focus on sub-degree level entry to higher education. This is why reforms to HE have been based on quasi market principles to encourage atypical institutions to enter the race. Institutions like FE colleges who can and should do far more of this type of skills delivery.
However the elephant in the room is that those economies like Germany and the Scandinavian economies, who have been more successful in developing such skills to create a beer glass labour market, have used a variety of mechanisms to get there. These mechanisms have been built upon the solid foundation of social partnership.
Where in the UK can we see employers working in partnership with all sides of industry including organised labour to purposeful effect in order to co-create the right skills solutions for their business needs? It is all very well calling for new supply side institutions but the whole economic strategy needs to be reviewed. I do not doubt that we need to recognise better institutes designed to deliver top level technical skills either through work-based routes or in the classroom. But this is not enough. Social partnership is the basis on which we can build strong local, regional, sectoral and national economies.
And this is where the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS) could really come into their own. The South East Midland LEP (SEMLEP) is a very good example of what might be. SEMLEP sees its role as to do three things well. First to act as a coordinating body for information, advice and guidance to SMEs in particular. To create a sort of one stop shop to help businesses grow. Second it is now responsible for distributing cash in the form of grants through the Growth Fund for capital projects and through the distribution of the European Social Fund for revenue spending on a range of activities including skills. Finally and most importantly SEMLEP acts as a convening body – a place for different players to sit around the table and create the strategies that lead to growth. And it is in this role that LEPs could engineer new forms of social partnership at the local level that will lead to a step change in growth.
The 39 LEPs should take it upon themselves to work out which National Centres or Institutes of Technical Excellence or new polytechnics they need and make sure they are created with the full engagement of local businesses. Local Universities and FE colleges are already collaborating well. In SEMLEP we have SEMU and FUSE to represent the two interests. They sit together on a Skills Forum. The architecture is being designed but not yet the clarity of vision and purpose.
Of course in his heart Vince Cable knows all this. Social Partnership has never gone away as an idea. But our policy environment of the last 30 years has meant that it is the idea that cannot be mentioned. It smacks of consensus, collaboration and managed economies. Yet social partnership is the future as well as the past. Our adversarial industrial relations culture of the 1970s may have poisoned the notion for many but LEPS, created by a conservative-led coalition, may yet be the means to will a new form of an old idea into life. Maybe polytechnics aren't such a retro idea after all.
Nick Isles is deputy principal of Milton Keynes College – follow him on Twitter at @dpmkcollege